Firings, feuds and anti-Semitism: Roger Waters’ long history of controversy

Roger Waters performs on stage during The Wall Live tour in France, 2013
Roger Waters performs on stage during The Wall Live tour in France, 2013 - AFP

Say what you like about the former Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters , but he is nothing if not consistent. After Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 8, most of the world responded to the atrocity with horror and disgust. Waters, as one of the best-known advocates for Palestine alive, had a rather different take on the matter. In an interview with Glenn Greenwald, Waters said that he was “still a little down that rabbit hole” as regards the circumstances of the Hamas incursion, and went on to suggest that “Didn’t the Israeli army … hear the bangs when they [Hamas] blew up whatever they had to blow up to get across the border? There’s something very fishy about that.”

When pressed – admittedly not very hard – by Greenwald as to whether the killing of Israeli civilians was a war crime, Waters replied: “Of course I don’t condone that, but the thing was totally thrown out of all proportion by the Israelis making up stories about beheading babies.” He concluded that the Palestinians had acted with integrity and righteousness, saying “Was it justified for them to resist the occupation? Yeah. They’re absolutely legally and morally bound to resist the occupation since 1967.”

Many people might consider Waters’s statements extraordinarily provocative, to say nothing of ill-informed. But by now the world is used to his controversial outbursts. Even the spokesman for the Campaign Against Antisemitism’s comments – “When it comes to Jews, there is no low to which Mr Waters will not sink. Decent people recognise his type” – had a world-weary air to them, as if in despair at this latest piece of outrage. And, after all, those who know him best are often first in line to condemn him.

In February of this year, Polly Samson, the acclaimed novelist and wife to Pink Floyd guitarist and singer David Gilmour, launched an extraordinary public attack on her husband’s former bandmate Roger Waters on Twitter. Calling him “antisemitic to your rotten core”, she also lambasted him for being “a Putin apologist and a lying, thieving, hypocritical, tax-avoiding, lip-synching, misogynistic, sick-with-envy, megalomaniac”, before concluding “enough of your nonsense.”

Gilmour not only retweeted his wife’s excoriating broadside, but added his own statement, “Every word demonstrably true.” As Waters spluttered about “the incendiary and wildly inaccurate comments” and a statement threatened darkly “he is currently taking advice as to his position”, no legal action has, at the time of writing, materialised.

This is probably just as well, given the latest allegations of Waters’ behaviour that have recently emerged. Pink Floyd producer Bob Ezrin and Waters’ touring saxophonist have both given interviews to the new documentary The Dark Side of Roger Waters that allege a deep hatred of Jews that led to his former associates not wishing for Waters to know of their Judaism for fear of being fired. Waters responded to the documentary with typical gusto, calling it “a flimsy, unapologetic piece of propaganda” and that it “indiscriminately mixes things I’m alleged to have said or done at different times and in different contexts, in an effort to portray me as an antisemite, without any foundation in fact.”

In a statement on his website, he went on to claim that “All my life I have used the platform my career has given me to support causes I believe in. I passionately believe in Universal Human Rights. I have always worked to make the world a better, more just and more equitable place for all my brothers and sisters, all over the world, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or nationality.” Except, one might suggest, the Israeli people. But this is of a piece with his previous public statements.

After all, the rock star has been an outspoken advocate for left-wing causes such as Palestine, Julian Assange and the leadership Jeremy Corbyn and has described socialism as “a good thing”. Yet from his poor treatment of bandmates to increasingly vitriolic and offensive public statements, the musician seems hell-bent on destroying what remains of his reputation: a tragedy for those of us who consider Pink Floyd one of the great British rock bands. Still, Waters is nothing if not consistent. Here are ten of his most incendiary, provocative or plain bizarre actions.

1977: spitting on a fan

Although Pink Floyd had been hugely successful ever since their mega-selling Seventies albums Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, their transformation from a quirky, offbeat band producing psychedelic fantasies such as The Piper at the Gates of Dawn into a stadium-filling behemoth sat uneasily with all its members, but especially with Waters, who turned into an increasingly dominant figure in the studio.

David Gilmour and Roger Waters on stage in 1980
David Gilmour and Roger Waters on stage in 1980 - Pete Still/Redferns

The first album that bore his imprimatur was 1977’s Animals, of which the drummer Nick Mason later commented “Roger was in full flow with the ideas, but he was really keeping Dave down, and frustrating him deliberately.” On tour with the band during their In The Flesh tour, Waters cut an increasingly angry and isolated figure, having little to do with his colleagues off-stage, and in one notorious incident at the Montreal Olympic Stadium, he spat on an over-enthusiastic fan in the front row, before shouting “For f___‘s sake, stop letting off fireworks and shouting and screaming. I’m trying to sing this song!” Gilmour ended the tour believing that Pink Floyd no longer had a future, largely as a result of this.

1980: The Wall and firing Rick Wright

For primarily financial reasons, Pink Floyd had to continue, and Waters, tormented by his behaviour, came up with a semi-autobiographical concept album about a rock star named Pink who begins to go insane under the pressures of fame. It continued Waters’ dominance of the band, with Gilmour given a handful of co-writing credits – including the album’s finest hour, the soaring Comfortably Numb – and one way in which Waters expressed this control was firing the band’s keyboardist Rick Wright, announcing that if Wright did not leave, he would refuse to release The Wall. Wright had the last laugh, being employed on the subsequent hugely expensive and loss-making tour as a session musician, and therefore being the only one of the core members of Pink Floyd to make money from it.

Roger Waters, Syd Barrett, Nick Mason and Richard Wright in 1967
Roger Waters, Syd Barrett, Nick Mason and Richard Wright in 1967 - WireImage

The Wall remains an acclaimed and hugely popular album, one of the bestselling LPs in history, but in light of Waters’ recent statements and behaviour, it is harder than ever to listen to in places. Its lyrics, as on Waiting for the Worms’ declaration that Pink is “waiting to turn on the showers and fire the ovens/for the queers and the coons and the reds and the Jews” now feel deeply uncomfortable and less ambiguous in their sentiments than many would like.

1983: The Final Cut

The last Pink Floyd album that contained the ‘classic’ line up of Waters, Gilmour and Mason – Wright was not reconciled to the band – is often regarded as their weakest, not least because it was a Waters solo album in all but name that happened to feature his former bandmates on it.

Waters wished to explore his feelings about the Falklands War, his father Eric’s death while he was still a baby and vent his hatred of Margaret Thatcher. But his means of doing this was to use songs that had been rejected from The Wall for their inferior quality, leading Gilmour to ask him “If these songs weren’t good enough for The Wall, why are they good enough now?” It ended up being a commercial failure, critically reviled – Melody Maker called it “a milestone in the history of awfulness” – and swiftly contributed to the break-up of Pink Floyd amidst years of legal acrimony.

1985-1987: Legal battles

Believing that Pink Floyd was his band and that they would be unable to continue without him, Waters applied to the High Court for a dissolution of the act and for its name never to be used again, calling it “a spent force creatively”. Gilmour – who had already criticised Waters in his 1984 solo song You Know I’m Right, sighing: “You can scream and shout with all your might/Dig in your heels and hold on tight” – refused to accept this, and announced “Roger is a dog in the manger and I’m going to fight him”, while calling Waters “extremely arrogant” into the bargain.

The cover of Pink Floyd's album Animals, featuring the disputed flying pig
The cover of Pink Floyd's album Animals, featuring the disputed flying pig - Hipgnosis

The ensuing legal case eventually was resolved with Gilmour, Mason and a rehabilitated Wright allowed to record and tour under the Pink Floyd name, but Waters missed no opportunity to sneer at his former bandmates, saying of their 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason “I think it’s facile, but a quite clever forgery... The songs are poor in general... Gilmour’s lyrics are third-rate.”

An especially bizarre aspect of the feud was that both sides claimed ownership of the inflatable flying pigs that were a mainstay of the touring performances, and Waters issued a writ to stop his former bandmates using them in live concerts. Eventually, Pink Floyd’s pigs had to be equipped with a prominent set of male genitalia to distinguish them from Waters’ version.

2002: Early anti-Semitic remarks

Waters continued to tour and record as a solo artist, continuing to enjoy a dig at his former colleagues – he said of Samson’s contributions to the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s albums that “it’s kind of pure Spinal Tap, isn’t it” – but he was also beginning to make increasingly incendiary comments. In the new documentary, the saxophonist Norbert Stachel recounts Waters refusing to eat vegetarian dishes in Lebanon, calling them “Jew food”. When the musician explained that most of his relatives had been killed in the Holocaust, the singer did a crude and offensive impersonation of a Polish peasant woman, and said “Oh, I can help you feel like you’re meeting your long-lost relatives. I can introduce you to your dead grandmother.”

Tellingly, Stachel also claimed to overhear Waters telling a girlfriend that Judaism was not a race, saying “They’re white European men that grow beards and they practise the religion Judaism but they’re no different than me, they have no difference in their background or their history or their culture or anything.”

2005: Tension at Live 8

At the behest of Bob Geldof, Pink Floyd briefly reunited to play a five-song set at the Live 8 concert, performing together for the first time in 24 years. At the time, the show was well-received and it was believed to have sparked a reconciliation of sorts between the band members – who prior to that point had only communicated via their lawyers – but Gilmour was subsequently forthcoming about the tensions that existed in the pre-show rehearsals, partly because Waters attempted to insist that Pink Floyd played Another Brick in the Wall from The Wall.

Pink Floyd reuniting at Live 8 in 2005
Pink Floyd reuniting at Live 8 in 2005 - Reuters

“I don’t like it much,” Gilmour said of the song. “It’s all right, but not part of the great emotional oeuvre.” He subsequently stated that “There were times when Roger was struggling to not get bossy, and I was struggling to keep being bossy”, and noted “the songs that Roger wanted were not the ones I thought we should do. The arrangements of the songs were not the way Roger wanted to do them. But I kind of insisted”, although he conceded that “Getting rid of that acrimony has got to be a good thing. Who wants to have that fester in your mind the rest of your life?” Yet at the end of the show, Waters put an arm round Gilmour in a fashion that could have been either friendly, or proprietorial; the look on the guitarist’s face suggested that he would rather have been somewhere else entirely. The band were offered “completely mad” money to reform for a full tour, but Gilmour forcibly vetoed it.

2011: Joining the BDS movement

After a period in which the highest-profile political act Waters undertook was to support the Countryside Alliance – claiming that, although he did not hunt himself, he wanted to support the rights of those who did – he wrote a piece for the Guardian in 2011. He used it to denounce “Israel’s illegal blockade” and asked that “fair-minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance”, which they could do by joining the campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, which he had played a gig in, to 60,000 spectators, as recently as 2006.

Roger Waters painting graffiti on Israel's separation barrier surrounding Bethlehem in 2006
Roger Waters painting graffiti on Israel's separation barrier surrounding Bethlehem in 2006 - AFP

Yet although Waters was quick to say that “This is not an attack on the people of Israel”, he compared what was happening there to the apartheid-era segregation in South Africa, and concluded “Artists were right to refuse to play in South Africa’s Sun City resort until apartheid fell and white people and black people enjoyed equal rights. And we are right to refuse to play in Israel until the day comes – and it surely will come – when the wall of occupation falls and Palestinians live alongside Israelis in the peace, freedom, justice and dignity that they all deserve.” At the time, it might have seemed noble; now, it looks like a statement of intent.

2013: Railing against the ‘American Jewish lobby’

Waters attracted controversy for comments he made in an interview with the Electronic Intifada in which he stated that “I think that the kind of boycott that was implemented against the apartheid regime in South Africa back in the day is probably the most effective way to go because the situation is that the Israeli government runs an apartheid regime in Israel, the occupied territories and everywhere else it decides.”

He refused to name the artists he had personally asked to boycott Israel, but claimed credit for suggesting to Stevie Wonder that he no longer performed shows there. Still, ever the victim, he saw himself as being discriminated against. In a separate interview that year, he remarked that it was the “extraordinarily powerful American Jewish lobby” who had frustrated public criticisms of Israel, and implicitly set himself against them.

2019: Attacking Madonna

Waters has been vocal about his contempt for his peers, such as Nick Cave and Radiohead, who have continued to play gigs in Israel, but perhaps there was no comparable outburst to his 2019 open statement to Madonna,  made in the Guardian, after she accepted an invitation to play a concert in Tel Aviv at the Eurovision finals. Waters said: “Some of my fellow musicians who have recently performed in Israel say they are doing it to build bridges and further the cause of peace. Bull___. To perform in Israel is a lucrative gig but to do so serves to normalise the occupation, the apartheid, the ethnic cleansing, the incarceration of children, the slaughter of unarmed protesters … all that bad stuff.”

Madonna performing at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv
Madonna performing at the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv - AFP

He went on: “I would urge all the young contestants – in fact all young people, in fact all people young and old alike, so that includes Madonna – to read the UN Declaration of Human Rights.”

2023: The world criticises Waters (and he fights back)

Finally, after years of anti-Israel and veiled anti-Semitism, to say nothing of overt support for Putin and anti-Ukraine statements – the invasion of which he called “not unprovoked” – the world had had enough. Samson’s statement of contempt for him has been echoed by countless politicians, from Keir Starmer and Michael Gove in the UK to the Biden administration, which called Waters’ performances on his tour in Berlin – in which he dressed up in quasi-fascist black trench coats with swastika-like emblems – “deeply offensive”, with Deborah Lipstadt, the Special Envoy against anti-Semitism, attacking his “despicable Holocaust distortion.” (This was before his comments on Hamas.)

Roger Waters performing in Berlin, May 2023
Roger Waters performing in Berlin, May 2023

The musician attacked this newspaper at a concert in Birmingham in May, saying “I will not be cancelled! Especially when it’s all lies. I’m fighting back, Mr Telegraph!” Yet the sheer weight of evidence against him now suggests that Waters’ fightback might be a brief and ill-fated one. Still, to quote his song Goodbye Cruel World: “There’s nothing you can say to make me change my mind.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.